Joseon’s Great Inventor

In Korea, the name Jang Yeong-sil is synonymous with firsts. His inventions from the 15th century include the world’s first rain gauge and Korea’s first water clock, which freed him of his lowly social status during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Even now, he’s still seen as one of Korea’s greatest scientists.

Today, the Korean government recognizes innovative new technologies developed by local companies and technical research centers. Sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and organized by the Korea Industrial Technology Association, the IR 52 Jang Yeong-sil award is the most prestigious industrial technology award in the country (the ’52’ in the award title refers to the fact that it is given to one product a week throughout the year).

Jang Yeong-sil’s life was full of drama. He began his career as a servant in civil service district courts, eventually overcoming the strict class system of the time to become a high-ranking government official. This was only made possible because of his passion for science and his love of people. Jang wanted to help improve society in practical, realistic ways, and his scientific talents fully bloomed when he met King Sejong, the great Korean monarch who ruled from 1418 to 1450.

According to the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, Jang Yeong-sil was an eighth-generation descendant of someone who had originally come from China. However, because his mother was a gwangi (a female Korean entertainer who served at civil service district courts), Jang was born a servant around the year 1390 (his exact birth and death dates are not known).

Life changed for Jang at the turn of the 15th century. A severe drought devastated the country’s crops, and the young man earned the respect of many by suggesting farmers divert river water toward the fields. The regional country magistrate complimented Jang personally, and later recommended him to the royal court during a recruitment period for talented minds.

Jang first worked as an engineer at a type foundry and in 1421 went to China to learn a wide variety of technologies. After returning home, King Sejong recognized his unique skills in 1423. When King Sejong decided to give Jang an official position in the royal court, his retainers opposed the promotion. They believed that Jang shouldn’t be employed as a government official because he was the son of a gwangi and technically a servant himself. Yet, the king recognized Jang’s extraordinary abilities and employed him, often giving the scientist free reign to do as he pleased.

After Jang shed his servant status, he went on to create countless inventions that changed daily life. The cheugugi rain gauge he created in 1441 is one of his most well-known products. A cylindrical instrument, it was 31 cm deep and had a diameter of 14 cm. Jang’s rain gauge measured rainfall and was so successful that it was soon used across the country. To put the invention into historical perspective, Italy invented a scientific rain gauge in 1639, France in 1658 and Britain in 1677.

Jang’s rain gauge reduced the number of mistakes made in measuring rain, expecially when the rain was at its fiercest, and was so scientifically advanced that it still passes the standards of today’s World Meteorogical Organization in terms of the range of measurement error. Practically speaking, the rain gauge helped farmers and the agriculture industry tremendously.

Another invention of Jang’s was Korea’s first water clock in 1434. Jang accomplished this after studying a number of different reference materials on Chinese and Islamic water clocks. It displayed time both visually and audibly. Water would move iron balls, which would drop and move a figurine to hit a gong, drum or bell, announcing the time to the community. The water clock was so complex that when it broke down after Jang’s death, nobody was able to fix it. It was only a century after its invention that people were able to reconstruct and restore the clock.

It is no exaggeration to say that Jang had a hand in most of the technological advancements made during King Sejong’s era, from astronomical observation instruments and portable sundials to ongnu (which combines the function of a water clock and an astronomical observation instrument) and supyo (which measures water levels in rivers). He also worked hard on founding metal typefaces and completed the Joseon Dynasty’s well-known metal type (gabinja) as well as a printing press for it.

Today, May19 is designated as Invention Day in Korea. That particular date was chosen to commemorate the day the Joseon Dynasty officially began using the world’s first rain gauge. The Korean government encourages scientists and technicians by giving awards to inventors of merit. Just as Jang brought science and technology to new levels in the past, today, Koreans continue to make huge strides in the same field, on the constant search for the next rain gauge or clock.

Source : KOREA People & Culture Magazine, November 2011

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